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Driver hell — when will it stop?

To get some extra pocket money to spend in the everyday maintenance of my systems, I also ended up working on maintenance of Windows computers on a daily basis; it’s not extraordinarily bad, and it usually doesn’t take me more than a day for a single computer even if it’s the first time I see it (once I’ve seen it once, I already know what to expect).

Unfortunately, it’s not always feasible to convert people to Linux yet; although I think I might start soon enough at least with a few people whose only use of a computer is to “browse websites, send email, watch a movie from time to time”. To make the task easier I obviously set up systems with Firefox and Thunderbird, VLC and OpenOffice, so that at least some programs can be found on the ”new“ systems when they migrate.

Unfortunately, it seems like Windows, especially Windows XP, a lot of my customers have OEM licenses for, has become a driver hell just like it was in the old days. And vendors don’t seem to make that much easier. Most vendors providing complete systems tend not to care about their users enough to provide downloads for the drivers (they just tell you to use their recovery partition; guess what? that stuff often doesn’t work extremely well, if at all, and in one instance it was even mounted as a drive on the normal OS… which meant it was infected too!), and the components’ manufacturer have websites that calling complex would be euphemistic:

  • ATI/AMD website is a mess to navigate; while they do (or did) chipsets too, you cannot really find a “chipset drivers” section; if you have an older version of a motherboard that is supported by legacy drivers you’ve got to navigate at least four pages before you can find out!
  • Asus website is a mess of javascript; whenever you ask to download something you have to tell them the operating system you’re looking for… – even for BIOS updates – the window is centered on the screen and does not work on cellphones, and of course once I could have used a cellphone just fine if it wasn’t for that (given that Asus boards usually can update the bios through USB sticks); no matter that half the time, whatever operating system you select, the same stuff is given you;
  • Intel website is also a labyrinth; to download some driver you got to search for the right class of software, then decide you got one in particular, and it often proposes you two options, then you have to agree to the license and again click download… that does not download the thing but rather redirects you to a page that calls a javascript to download the file; such javascript can sometimes not work at all, so they provide you with the usual ”if the file does not download, click here“; but rather than being a direct link, it’s also a javascript function; checking the function, it lists a clear bouncer link (which you could download with wget, too!), but with a little more presence of mind, you can notice that the link is _provided as a GET-dparameter to the (dynamic, at this point) page on Intel’s server; much easier to copy that out and drop the rest I’d say;
  • Realtek’s website sometimes does not work properly; on the other hand they give you direct FTP links so once you know the FTP server you can find the drivers just fine avoiding the website; would have been nicer to split it down for driver type so that the listing wouldn’t take a few minutes, but I have to say is the system that works better; even if FTP does make me feel like we’re back in the early ‘90s;
  • almost all download sites tend to have pretty slow connections, or capped connections; I can understand Asus, Gigabyte and Realtek that have their main server in Taiwan or so it would seem, but what about Intel? Luckily at least ATI and nVidia (that have the biggest driver packs) have very fast servers.

Then there are other problems like trying to understand that ”ATI Technologies, Inc. SBx00 Azalia” is actually the name reported by lspci for a Realtek Azalia coded that needs the HDA drivers from Realtek; or trying to guess the driver version, or the driver’s name, from the downloaded files, that often enough don’t have any kind of naming or versioning scheme. Again ATI (for quite a long time) and nVidia (recently) solved this in a pretty nice way: thei use their logo for the install executable; this does not make it very manageable under Linux though, given that nautilus doesn’t show (yet) the PE icon (maybe I can modify it to load the PE file, and extract the icon?).

Let’s just hope that Microsoft’s moves with Vista and Windows 7 will be a trampoline for Linux for the masses; I sincerely count more on Microsoft’s changes than Google OS as I’ve noted since Vista already gave us something useful for Linux.

Comments 5
  1. I fully agree that it is often easier to get obscure hardware to work under gentoo than on an average windows-machine. Once you’ve lost the driver-CD windows can be great fun to put it mildly. (I haven’t hit consumer hardware that I could not get to work under linux in contrast)However it seems that microsoft is aware of this problem as well. Windows 7 has improved in this respect as it is for example actively suggesting new drivers from manufacturers websites as direct download links (so not only links from windows update anymore, although I haven’t tried with this laptop).Having the windows 7 RC running on my laptop I unfortunatelly don’t think it will drive many people to linux. Overall I find it a very impressive OS that pleasantly surprises me in many aspects. Note that even on a RC I did not hit any issues, while I found Vista unworkably slow and was at the point of downgrading to XP.*) to prevent silly comment: this laptop is a tablet-PC. KDE/Gnome/xfce don’t appear to have anywhere near the same level of integration of pen/tablet-functionality into the OS as I see for Vista/windows 7. And I have been running Gentoo, Arch, FreeBSD, etc.

  2. Well, to be honest it’d be good for Linux – at least here in Italy – if Microsoft _really_ strengthened their anti-piracy systems; and not in the mess that is there with XP (multiple version disks of the same OS with different valid product keys).I could have installed probably a hundred Linux system if people couldn’t get most of Windows software pirated (and that includes Office, antiviruses, and stuff like that).

  3. Not fighting pirated copies too much is without doubt how microsoft has become the market-leader in the past. Although software like “word-perfect” was pretty rubish in my opinion compared to word 3. Similar for netscape compared to early IE btw.However I doubt it would make so much of a difference now as1) It takes time to adjust to a different concept as “windows” is for many people “the computer”. Would you like to spend time where your photos, files, etc are stored if you don’t have any interest in computers (or spend 40-50 euro instead)?2) major problem is installing that computer-game for your children that they “borrow” from one of their friends. These games are mostly windows. Again a chicken-egg problem that might be solved by “Wine”, but how easy is it to get that to run for the average computer-user?3) The 40-50 euros is because most people get windows pretty much for “free” as the OEM license is far lower then the retail edition. (as retailers earn a lot with the crapware the install) Assuming that the fast majority of people buys a PC with a OS pre-installed.4) Looking at the software I typically install on a machine on top of Windows there is very little that is not freeware or opensource. With Openoffice, Thunderbird, Firefox/Opera, VLC, Avira I’ve covered most needs for the average user.*) Although for work I’ve abandoned openoffice, a nice bug that makes it unworkable for me:… (and I find open-office horribly slow compared to office 2007)Bottomline is that my feeling is that Google has an important role to play when more and more of the things people do with computers are no longer tied to a single machine potentially helped by mobile phones becoming more powerfull. That microsoft is going to make a free web-edition of office 2010 is pretty shocking as that must be one of their major money-generating pieces of software.

  4. Sincerely I’d say that Microsoft nowadays gets probably most of the revenue from Office 2007 with the help of Access and the ton of companies that develop software that uses Access in the first place (I’m unfortunately stuck with that, too!).But one thing I noticed is that, compared with a few years ago, I get to set up computers that are mostly used for browsing and multimedia and _not_ for games, which makes your second point (which has been a major problem in the past). I guess the point here is that there is a new target of people using a computer (and the consoles helps in moving away at least part of the old target).Google might help with moving more service to the so-called cloud, but … I’m not really sure how much of an ally Google will be on the long term. On the other hand, I’m probably going to start experimenting with user-compatible Linux installs in the next few weeks, to see if I can convert one or two people to Linux (or Linux-mostly) setups, where I know they don’t need special software.One problem I had with a friend of mine who could just as well use Linux… is the software used to connect/disconnect the ADSL modem for a by-the-hour internet connection. Those things are nasty!

  5. A 72 year old man, still playing with computers, I use OpenSUSE because it works well, and others I have tried – not as well. Trying to find drivers for friends running XP is a trial, but Linux is not all fun and games. Good thing there are so many open source options because installing some is a nightmare, worse than finding XP drivers. My other machine is MacBook with OS/X, easier but a bit expensive.

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